Cultural challenges and the woman CEO: An interview with Nigeria’s Cecilia Ibru

The CEO of Oceanic Bank discusses the challenge of navigating gender norms as a woman leader.

Women in every country meet obstacles to achieving top leadership roles, but Africa’s developing economies and transforming social architectures present unique challenges. Cecilia Ibru, managing director and CEO of Nigeria’s Oceanic Bank International, speaks candidly about how her own development and success have been shaped by her country’s cultural environment. In this video, she discusses gender norms in Nigeria and the balancing act involved in alternately defying and accepting them in order to achieve success as a woman in business. Her observations and experiences raise interesting questions for women navigating the entrenched business environments of any country. She spoke with McKinsey Quarterly editor Thomas Fleming in April 2009 during a visit to her daughter’s residence near Washington, DC.

Watch the video, or read the transcript below.

Cultural challenges and the woman CEO
Oceanic Bank’s Cecilia Ibru discusses gender norms and being a woman leader in Nigeria.

Finding women at the top—there are very few there. But that is not to say that it will not begin to grow—more and more women will begin to find themselves in top executive positions. Now, this whole thing of women being in the background is a cultural expectation. And hitherto, when men were being educated in Nigeria and in some parts of Africa, women were expected to just get to the marriageable age, get married, and start having children. But some enlightened fathers insisted that their daughters must be educated, and I think that has helped a lot of us. More and more ladies are being educated now, and I think it is a matter of time. It will get better and better with women heading organizations.

Now, for the first time, many women are heading their own oil and gas companies, heading their own industries. Women are coming up and beginning to understand—everybody is beginning to understand—that women can also contribute to an economy as much as a man can. And also, women know that we are challenging men, [particularly the ones who] believe that business is only for the men. So it’s like we are challengers, but the attitude of a woman who is going into the so-called male-dominated professions has to be different, in that, you’ve got to show that you are worthy of it, that you can stand on your own and even do better than the men.

It’s got to come from within. It’s not a struggle. It’s something that you must do and enjoy, otherwise it will eat you up. I have always enjoyed doing what I’m doing—that is not to say I should not play the cultural role of deference to the man—that is expected, that has nothing to do with business. Just because I’m a business woman and I happen to be at the top does not mean I will not show my cultural appreciation for the man, in terms of the man being number one before the women in our society. There’s a cultural deference that is expected and, whether I’m at the top of the bank or not, I must ensure it—because it is them, their support, that will take you up there, in that [people should think], “Oh, well, she behaves herself properly.”

Proper attitude is very important if a woman is going to get to the top, [as is] the character and the way you comport yourself in society. Certain things are expected. A woman is not expected to go to a club and things like that, to dance, and so on. But the men executives, it doesn’t really matter. But if that’s an expectation and you are able to sort of abide by it, then you will be supported—morally and otherwise—in business. They will not support you with money or any of that, but [rather] the society allows you to blossom. Because everything in society is a matter of whether you are permitted to or not. And if society did not permit certain things to happen, it would not happen. Take what has happened in America [with the election of Barack Obama]. America permitted it to happen, in spite of prejudices. It is the same with women in our country. The society is now permitting women, culturally, to develop. But we women have to be sure that we don’t get overly, you know, arrogant just because we happen to be sharing the same positions with men.

That does not make us any lesser. It’s like in a home: if the woman is a president, and the man is not a president, it does not mean she is not his wife anymore and the roles will change. No. Society does not allow that in our country, where women are expected to play a certain role. As long as your attitude is right, I think women will continue to do well in our society.

But then I don’t go out and say, “Listen, I’m going to champion the women cause.” There’s no such thing. Because in education, we are educated the same. We are not separated, [it’s not as if] “Look, you have one education, you have another.” So, really, it’s a matter of if the woman so desires to get to a particular position in society, then you just have to work at it.

If a woman comes to me and says, “Could you advise me on this and that?” I will. When I’m asked to come and talk to a group of women, I go and share my experiences. Because many of them wonder, “How does she get there?” Until you share your experiences and show how you handle certain delicate issues—in marriage, with children, with male colleagues—they think probably, “There’s more to it than that.” Like I always say to my women folks, “Don’t forget we are all like flesh.” Nobody is particularly superior to the other. It’s a matter of opportunity and your zeal to move up to opportunity and begin to handle it.

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